Qualcomm aims to solve the mobile data problem with small cell base stations

Qualcomm's been doing very well lately, and most of those chips it builds are for mobile devices that demand a lot of data to serve their owners' needs -- and as more and more folks jump on the smartphone bandwagon, the demand for data will continue to grow exponentially. Today at Qualcomm's What's Next in Mobile event in Santa Clara, California, the company told us more about its plan to help build a network that'll be able to serve up the data all its SoC's need. The goal is to give us 1000 times the capacity of what we currently have. One of the key parts, as Qualcomm sees it, is small cell base stations in homes, offices and retail spaces working in tandem with the large cell towers that currently adorn so many roofs and mountain tops -- the same thing ex-FCC head honcho Julian Genachowski talked about last year.

You see, macrocells (read: towers) can blanket wide areas in signal, but they struggle to penetrate the innards of buildings, which is where small cells come in handy. For those who aren't familiar, small cell base stations like femtocells and picocells have been around for years, helping to boost cell signal in small areas by hooking into a local wired network. Until now, these small cells have served as a small-scale supplement to macro networks, but Qualcomm CTO Matt Grob sees them comprising a much bigger chunk of the network of the future. According to him, there are a few issues with using them in an expanded role, however.

First, there's the backhaul problem, meaning that small cell base stations must be connected to wired broadband and most folks would be, shall we say, less than enthused about the cell network sucking up all their home internet bandwidth. There are also technical challenges, as devices would be constantly handed off from small cell to small cell, lowering battery life and network performance for users. And lastly, there's a significant monetary cost to get the small cells deployed en masse.

Qualcomm aims to solve the mobile data problem with small cell base stations

Naturally, Grob has ways to solve to all of these problems, starting with Qualcomm's own small cells. The diminutive base station the company created is about the size of a couple of decks of cards and packs both smartphone and base station hardware, so it can see and talk to other units to provide more efficient network management to providers. Also, Qualcomm's UltraSON technology was created to mitigate the handoff problem -- in real-world testing on its San Diego campus using 19 small cells, the tech reduced the number of handoffs from 25 per minute to two per minute. While that's certainly an impressive feat, Grob failed to elaborate what it means in terms of an actual user experience as compared to service received from a regular cell tower.

Currently, the devices cost "about as much a tattoo" (whatever that means) and "have the potential to cost less than a phone" according to Grob. So, not exactly cheap, but if the company can start building a bunch of them, the economics will get more palatable as manufacturing ramps up and the costs go down. Plus, these distributed base stations can open up new business models and revenue streams for ISP's. Grob suggested that cable companies could stuff these small cells inside of set top boxes (which conveniently obviates the deployment and backhaul issues) and selling the added coverage to cellular providers. Or, a company could use a reciprocal access model, where an ISP provides the base station and users then get access to all other base stations within the network.

Qualcomm aims to solve the mobile data problem with small cell base stationsQualcomm thinks that if it can get 20 percent of homes to house small cell base stations, and combine that with ten times the current spectrum allotted to cellular communications, it can hit its goal of providing 1000x our current network capacity. Naturally, acquiring that additional wireless spectrum for cellular use presents its own, significant challenges, but Qualcomm's thinking is that there is plenty of high frequency spectrum (like the WiMAX-friendly 3.5GHz band) that'll fit the small cell bill.

When will this massively capable new network arrive? Grob couldn't say, but he did mention that Qualcomm will be pushing to get that 10x increase in wireless spectrum over the next 10 years, and small cell adoption will be up to service providers to push to customers. So, it won't be available any time soon, but it's good to know there's a plan in the works to make it happen... eventually.